How traditional card games such as Rummy, poker and teen patti have taken the mobile gaming industry by storm.
When Aman Dhingra, a travel agent in Delhi, started playing Crush Saga in 2014, one of 93 million people across the world who reportedly played hugely popular puzzle game that year. However, Dhingra’s foreign love affair didn’t last long. Last year, he ditched Candy and fell for teen patti. “I have a massive crush on the desi game,” he grins. “And it will be an enduring affair."

No wonder, among the top 10 grossing games on Google Play in India in February, Candy Crush Saga trails Octro’s Teen Patti, and is closely followed by Teen Patti Gold, a desi version of poker played with three cards. Two more card games find place on the list.

Ace of Spades

Indians won’t find it surprising, but even Americans don’t appear baffled by this. Mark Skaggs, co-creator of FarmVille, a farming simulation game developed by Zynga, is not shocked to see a global blockbuster being toppled by a desi game. Conceding that Candy Crush is an international hit, Skaggs reckons that gamers in India are voicing their opinion on what they enjoy and want to play. “Players in India like games made for people in India,” adds Skaggs, who early last year left Zynga to join Indian mobile gaming company Moonfrog Labs in Bengaluru.

Growing up, Skaggs played all sorts of card games whether it was old maid, hearts, blackjack, war, spades or poker. “India is very rich in history, culture, style and tastes,” he says, pointing out his biggest learning from the Indian market: Made in India, Made for India.

Traditional card games such as teen patti, poker and rummy have taken the mobile gaming industry by storm as card games on social networks find wider acceptance in India, the second largest smartphone market in the world. “The average Indian is not familiar with King Arthur mythology nor well versed with Hearthstone,” says Ankit Jain, cofounder of Moonfrog Labs, in the context of two popular games globally. The numbers flaunted by the mobile gaming company substantiate the popularity of the Indian card game. Over 22 lakh play Teen Patti Gold every day; the biggest card blockbuster from Moonfrog’s stable has had over 2 crore downloads so far. “Card games connect with people,” says Jain whose startup raised $16 million from Tiger Global and Sequoia Capital in 2015.

Jain is not the only one who is betting big on the card games. There is Ankush Gera, founder of Junglee Games, who claims over 1 million app downloads and 10 million users. In a bid to popularise its rummy, the gaming company roped in actors Prakash Raj and Rana Daggubati for its first TVC last July.

A gaming enthusiast who played poker in high school and college, Gera never planned on rummy, now one of its successful games. There are other games like Eatme, an underwater fish war game, which is about to reach 1 million user mark within 30 days of launch, and Howzat, a mobile cricket game, with over 7 million users that have done equally good, he adds.

Smart Cards

Gera refers to a 2016 Nasscom report that says 8% of games being developed in India are casino-based card games. “This shows the growing importance of card games in Indian families,” says Gera, explaining why the online version is replicating the offline popularity: a hassle-free gaming experience, easy to log in from any location at any time, and no need to hunt for a gaming partner.

For Saurabh Aggarwal, founder of mobile gaming company Octro, the biggest push for card games is that it eliminates the need to find a common place and convenient time to play with friends. Started in 2013, Octro’s Teen Patti has over 40 million users and is played by over 3.5 million players every day, claims Aggarwal, who raised $15 million from Sequoia Capital in 2014.

While users can download the game for free and start playing, they are matched with other players across the world. When a user runs out of free chips, she can buy more and play for higher stakes with more skilled players. “We also make some money from advertising,” says Aggarwal, adding that the primary source of revenue remains selling chips. The randomness offered by the cards and real players ensure that the playing experience is unique each time a player comes online.

Another factor creating stickiness among users is innovations launched by the Indian gamers. Octro recently introduced a game called Six Patti, a fusion between teen patti and bridge. The game transforms teen patti into a more cerebral endeavour where one has to remember the cards, strategise on when to play the best hand or hold. Then there is Card Royale, a card battle game where both contestants play the game in real time as opposed to taking turns.

If online teen patti and poker are luring Indians, good old rummy is not far behind. Ace2Three, an online rummy portal, has over 7 million users, sees 5,000 app downloads per day, and 20,000 playing the game every day, claims Deepak Gullapalli, founder of the gaming portal. “The size of the online rummy market is estimated at Rs 1,000 crore and is growing at 50% every year,” says Gullapalli, adding that rummy is an old favourite in India.

It Ain’t Gambling

There is, however, a perception that these card games come under gambling. Gullapalli has a riposte: Ask people to try their luck with rummy. It’s a game of skill, and even from a statistical point, the probability of winning a rummy hand is 95% based on skill. “One can never win a hand of rummy unless one is good at it,” says Gullapalli, who has launched a digital campaign to find new users. Equating skill-based card games with gambling is grossly erroneous. “The perception will change,” he adds.

Mithun Rebello, co-founder of online poker portal Poker High, is not waiting for perceptions to change. When he, a lawyer, decided to turn entrepreneur by throwing his hat in the poker ring, there were furious protests from his family. “Convincing my family certainly took some time,” he grins.

His efforts seem to have paid off outside the home as well. Poker High is one of four companies to be issued a licence under the Nagaland Skill Act for two variants of poker. Nagaland is one of three states in India, the other two being Karnataka and West Bengal, that have classified poker as a skill-based game. “The law is a game-changer,” he says. “It has given a huge boost to our efforts to bring poker out of the darkness that it was unfairly relegated to.” Rebello now wants to spread the word that poker is a game based on skill. “We will start an online poker school to spread awareness,” he says.

The going, however, is not easy for card gaming companies as perceptions are deeply entrenched. “Our industry is still affected by this taboo which is curbing its potential for growth,” says Roland Landers, CEO of All India Gaming Federation (AIGF). Landers wants to make people aware of what the law says about various skill-based games. There is considerable statistical evidence to suggest that poker involves substantial amount of skill and mathematical abilities. The Supreme Court in 1968 said that playing rummy involves skill, as mental prowess is required to remember which cards have fallen and in analysing patterns and sequences, he points out. Several high courts too have said that poker is a game of skill. Legislation in West Bengal and Nagaland state that rummy and poker are games of skill. There has not been any contrary decision or judicial ruling or legislative provision till date, claims Landers.

Even as India continues to grapple with the negative perception of card games, globally machines have upped their ante. Early this month, Libratus, a poker bot, won chips worth $1.5 million from four of the world’s top poker players in a three-week challenge at Pittsburgh, US. AI suddenly doesn’t seem so nerdy.

Source: Economic Times